A year ago, Texas Longhorns cornerbacks Davante Davis and Holton Hill were unproven recruits yet to participate in a practice in Austin. Now, Davis is a preseason All-Big 12 pick and the two could become the conference’s premier duo at the position.
Perhaps that isn’t saying much, as the Big 12 lost all five defensive backs from the 2015 All-Big 12 first team, including cornerbacks Xavien Howard (Baylor), Zach Sanchez (Oklahoma), Kevin Peterson (Oklahoma State), and Daryl Worley (West Virginia).
As a result, young players or older players with limited playing time will have to emerge around the league to step up for the departed stars, three of whom were underclassmen.
For instance, Oklahoma will likely start senior Dakota Austin (two starts in 2015) alongside sophomore Jordan Thomas, who had a huge freshman season in tying for third in the Big 12 with five interceptions — even the second-most talented team in the conference is still starting a relatively unproven player at one spot.
The preseason perception of Davis is strong and Hill could jump into the All-Conference mix if he builds on an impressive freshman season. And count Texas head coach Charlie Strong as one who believes that both will improve in their second season on the Forty Acres.
“They're going to get better,” Strong said in June. “The thing they have is height. They have height and a good size on them and they can run. The only thing they're going to do is get better and improve. Now they're going into year two and they've gotten stronger in winter conditioning and summer conditioning, so those two are just going to improve and get better and better.”
A rangy 6’2, 197-pounder, Davis is the final remaining member of the so-called Florida Five, but came to Texas as a prospect who was considered relatively raw because strength and conditioning programs in the Sunshine State tend to lag well behind those in Texas.
However, Davis improved more quickly than anticipated, starting the final five games of the season and earning honorable mention All-Big 12 honors after leading the team with seven passes broken up and adding 36 tackles, one tackle for loss, and one interception.
Unsurprisingly for a freshman, Davis got better as the season went on, recording six tackles along with three passes broken up against Iowa State, six tackles and his first career interception against West Virginia, and six more tackles against Baylor in the season finale.
A physical defender with solid speed and excellent anticipation, the size and length of Davis make him difficult to deal with for opposing receivers — most of them lack his height and wingspan.
During the spring, defensive coordinator Vance Bedford called him one of the standout defenders on the team.
The expectations for higher for Hill than Davis when the Houston Lamar product arrived in Austin as the No. 7 cornerback and the No. 80 player overall, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
The 6’2, 195-pounder didn’t disappoint, either, starting the final eight games and also earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors.
Against Oklahoma State, he made his first big play at Texas, giving the ‘Horns a lead in the third quarter when he used his length to make a difficult interception and return it for a touchdown.
For the season, Hill ranked second on the team behind Davis with four passes broken up and made 49 tackles, including one for a loss. He also recovered a fumble to go along with his interception return for a touchdown.
Hill had some rough moments, though, including a bad penalty and two missed tackles against Baylor, giving up a too-easy touchdown against Iowa State, and getting victimized against Texas Tech when he nearly had another interception before Red Raiders wide receiver Devin Lauderdale hit him high, knocking the ball loose and into the hands of speedy Jakeem Grant for an improbable touchdown.
Still, the first mistake against the Cyclones was of the freshman variety and the play on Thanksgiving nothing more than a fluke.
And Hill still had good overall statistics against the Red Raiders and the Bears — eight tackles, a tackle for loss, and a fumble recovery against Texas Tech and four solo tackles and two passes broken up against Baylor.
In the Orange and White game, he turned in a good performance, breaking up a pass intended for freshman wide receiver Collin Johson that sophomore safety John Bonney intercepted. On the negative side, Bedford mentioned that he had been waiting for a while to see Hill make a play.
Both players also have to tackle 250-pound running backs in junior D’Onta Foreman and sophomore Chris Warren in practice in addition to dealing with talented wide receivers like sophomore John Burt, junior Armanti Foreman, and Johnson — by the time that season arrives, fall camp should have them ready to deal with any skill position players that opponents can throw at them.
As Strong alluded to, Davis and Hill merely have to continue working hard and maintain the same trajectories that they have been on for the last year to become the best pair of cornerbacks in the pass-happy Big 12 Conference.